David C Isby looks at Anglo-American Co-operation during the air campaigns over Afghanistan and Iraq
ANGLO-AMERICAN airpower, forged in combat during two world conflicts, has had 50 years of post-war joint training and operations — in the Cold War and ‘shooting’ wars alike — to bring the two nations to their current capability for using coalition airpower as a flexible but integral force, a fact demonstrated daily over Afghanistan and Iraq. The coalition airpower in combat today amounts to far more than F-16s and Harriers carrying out their respective missions. It represents the application of state-of-the art command control technology combined with sensor fusion from a broad range of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms. It also looks ahead to a future in which UAVs and UCAVs (unmanned air vehicles/unmanned combat air vehicles) will carry out a greater percentage of operations. Coalition air operations enable the severely resource-constrained RAF to ‘punch above its weight’, making use of US investments and capabilities that would be impossible to duplicate with roundels painted on them.
The RAF today is taking part in combat operations over Afghanistan and Iraq effectively integrated into an Anglo-American coalition. There is no need for artificial divisions of responsibility. RAF aircraft are not limited to supporting British troops on the ground or to carrying out a discrete set of missions, but are matched with the needs they are best capable of meeting.
The RAF units in the region do not constitute a separate air component. Rather they are integrated in the different mission-specific parts of the coalition air effort. In addition to the squadron-sized detachment of fast combat jets — Tornado GR.4s at Al Udeid and the Harrier GR.7s at Kandahar — VC-IOs (Bahrain and Akrotiri) are integrated in the theatre tanker effort. RAF Tri-stars provide inter-theatre transport, while C-17s and Hercules, flying out of Basra and other bases (including those in Afghanistan), are part of the intra-theatre transport operations. HS-125s at Al Udeid provide VIP and other priority transport. Other detachments include Nimrod MR2s (Basra and Seeb) and Merlin, Puma and Chinook helicopters in Iraq.
The Anglo-American airpower relationship in the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq is a uniquely close one, only (smaller and more limited) Australian participation being similar in the depth, if not scope, of its integration through the command and control system. This takes nothing away from the other coalition air arms, which have successfully taken part — or are taking part — in these air wars. While these coalition allies have demonstrated their capability and commitment, they have not had the benefit of — nor aimed to duplicate — the Anglo-American special relationship. Rather, by showing what is possible and feasible, the Anglo-American relationship has served to clear the way for broader coalition co-operation with the other partners in the air war.
Making Coalition Airpower Real
The prime integrator of Anglo-American (and other coalition) airpower over Afghanistan and Iraq is the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center, pronounced kay-ock). On the surface, this is an enlarged ‘high tech’ version of its World War Two predecessors: RAF Fighter Command’s ‘Ops Room’ used in the Battle of Britain — or the ‘strike plots’ on US Navy carriers which planned and directed attacks on the Japanese. NATO CAOCs secured Europe’s airspace during the Cold War but today’s have capabilities and significance well beyond these. In 1995, the US Air Force decided to invest in the CAOC weapons system as the future command and control hub of air operations in a theatre of conflict. The British also invested in the creation of their own airpower command and control centre for national expeditionary contingencies: referred to as PJHQ (Permanent Joint Headquarters) located at Northwood, Middlesex, first went into action directing British airpower in 2000, during Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone.
The outgoing US Air Force chief of staff, General John P Jumper, has been quoted as saying that the CAOC is a weapons system, similar to a combat aircraft. This is more than just a slogan. Just as the best-designed airframe, engine, systems, and armament do not together make a combat aircraft without being integrated into a single package, the CAOC must integrate many different functions, including creating effective coalition airpower from the actions of multiple air arms. How does this build on the practices and relationships established in the years of Operation Southern Watch over Iraq and, after September 11, 2001, in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom? CAOC integration included the practice of embedding British staff in US headquarters alongside their US counterparts — not simply creating a parallel British staff or a British liaison capability (as did other coalition partners). For example, the British presence at CENTCOM (US Central Command) headquartered at MacDill AFB, Florida — the operational headquarters responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq — from 2001 was first operated at the three-star level (Lieutenant General), then at the two-star (Major General), and includes both planners and operators. The British presence at the region’s CAOC in 2001-03 was at a similarly high level. Through this top-level representation, British airpower has gained credibility as well as interoperability. While many other coalition members are represented at CENTCOM, the only one comparable in its approach of enabling coalition airpower through high-level command and control integration was Australia, which had a much smaller presence. In the words of Air Marshal Sir Brian Burridge (who was British National Component Commander at CENTCOM in 2002), speaking to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in 2003, the degree of integration is such that «instead of an American officer doing a particular job, there would be a British officer. That gave us linkage and connectivity».
The CAOC is located in «a country in the region», reportedly a converted warehouse complex near Al Udeid AB, Doha, Qatar. It replaces an earlier installation at Prince Sultan Air Base, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was used from 1990 to the end of the 2003 campaign in Iraq. The current installation features improved electronics which reflect state-of-the-art command and control systems to show the full range of intelligence and sensor inputs which are used to present an integrated air picture. Two large vertical plasma displays show the air situations over Afghanistan and Iraq at any given moment.
By spring 2005, there were about 165 personnel at the CAOC, compared to over 700 in 2003. This reflects the decreased number of sorties using weapons, which were down to about 50 a day in the region. (Total sortie numbers are much higher, standing at over 100 a day in Iraq alone). The CAOC interfaces with CENTCOM — its immediate superior — and with specialized joint headquarters, including the Joint Personnel Recovery Center (which handles search and rescue in-theatre) and the Theater Special Operations Command. Both of these obviously require air operations as integral to their mission and in both, British personnel work alongside their US counterparts.
The CAOC determines the flight schedules of the in-theatre US, British and coalition combat aircraft, issuing an Air Tasking Order (ATO) produced each day by the CAOCs Combat Plans Division. The Current Operations Division works the plan and integrates the inputs from the other divisions of the CAOC. This includes the ISR Division (which has its own sensor fusion cell), the Air Mobility Division (which controls the air transport operations in-theatre as well as the tankers on which most combat sorties depend). The Strategy Division looks at the big picture. The CAOC is kept informed of aircraft movements not scheduled on the ATO, such as helicopters operating in support of ground commanders and special operations missions. The CAOC handles deconfliction and interface with civil air traffic control through its ATC Cell. A new addition is the ‘senior space officer’, withdrawn after 2003 but restored this spring, with direct access to US Space Command capabilities and platforms. Each of these divisions has British personnel integral to it. In spring 2005. Air Commodore Simon Bryant was senior British officer at the CAOC, serving as its director (not a British-only command but responsible for its overall function). The CAOC also has a Naval Air Liaison Element (NALE) and a Marine Liaison Officer (MARLO), plus liaison teams from the air arms providing coalition airpower.
To meet the requirements set out in each day’s ATO, each squadron in the theatre — US, British and coalition — normally has a requirement to generate a number of sorties (in the spring of 2005 this amounted to about ten a day) for the different missions required by the CAOC. These taskings come about either as the result of top-down planning or of time-critical requests, passed up through channels from units in the field to the CAOCs Battlefield Co-ordination Element (BCE), which represents the ground forces. While ‘non-kinetic’ surveillance and reconnaissance missions have become increasingly important by that time, there is still a need for close air support missions, especially quick response to hostile attacks.
Anglo-American Eyes On Target
These quick response missions still get the press, whether they involve Harrier GRJs over southern Afghanistan or Tornado GR.4s over Iraq. The RAF’s proficiency in laser guided bomb delivery has been greatly appreciated, but with the improving military situation, these occasions are increasingly rare. In addition to dropping ordnance, RAF aircraft take part in an ‘air presence’ mission. This can include reminding the people on the ground that the coalition has eyes — and weapons — in the sky. Such missions were successfully integrated in the security plans for recent elections in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The most important mission currently being carried out by RAF combat aircraft in the coalition air effort over Iraq is reconnaissance. The CAOC assigns armed reconnaissance aircraft — US, RAF and coalition. They can be launched on pre-briefed missions or directed to areas of interest in flight by one of the two ASOCs (Air Support Operations Centres) in Iraq: one for the north and west, the other for Baghdad and the south. These are supplemented by E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) and E-8C Joint STARS (Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) that can act as an ASOC when required. By spring 2005, US Air Force E-3s — and their RAF counterparts — had become less common over Iraq, only arriving in theatre when required rather than keeping up a constant airborne presence as in the past. A JTAC (Joint Tactical Air Controller, who can call the ASOC and request help) will direct aircraft, when required, regardless of their nationality.
RAF Tornado GR.4s from the squadron-sized detachment now reported as based at Al Udeid are a major part of this reconnaissance effort. This allows the CAOC to optimize both aircraft and sensor performance with mission requirements, the Tornados equipped with RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Aircraft Pod TORnado) pods and the TIRRS (Tornado Infra-Red Reconnaissance System) being tasked alongside their US counterparts, including F-15Es and Block 40 F-16C/ D fitted with Sniper XR (extended range) pods, F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets and Air Force F-16C/DS with Litening AT pods, and Air National Guard F-16C/Ds with TARS (Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System) pods.
One mission which has recently tasked many of the Tornado GR.4 sorties has been monitoring infrastructure such as pipelines and transmission lines, looking for potential sabotage. RAF Tornados equipped with RAPTOR continue to ‘keep an eye on’ areas used by insurgents on terrain denial missions, a term used to describe sorties that, through a show of force, deny insurgents from using such an area to launch mortars or rockets. Though not reported, it is likely that the RAPTOR system’s ground station, part of the RAF’s Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing, has been forward deployed to the region, and probably also to Al Udeid. This would allow in-flight imagery to be transmitted from Tornados during a mission and fused at the CAOC. The TIRRS is reportedly still being used in action despite the introduction of the RAPTOR, though it lacks in-flight transmission capability.
The Tornados GR.4s are not the only British ISR platforms: Nimrod R.ls and Canberra PR.9s have been operating around Iraq. But the ISR platform involving the greatest degree of Anglo-American integration has been in the RAF operation of RQ-1A Predator UAVs. By spring 2005, the Predator community was said to include about 50 RAF personnel, including at least eight pilots. Most press attention on RAF Predator operations has centred around RAF 1115 Flight based at Creech AFB, Nevada, the former Indian Springs Auxiliary Field, as part of the USAF-RAF Combined Joint Predator Task Force. In fact, this RAF unit’s designation reflects that of the two USAF UAV squadrons with which its operations have been embedded, the 11th (training) and the 15th (operational) reconnaissance squadrons. There have been reports in the press of RAF UAV operators having been deployed to Iraq and earning green ink in their logbooks (earning green ink refers to combat operational flying) carrying out combat operations in the region. At least one RAF UAV pilot is reported to have fired AGM-114M Hellfire missiles from a Predator at a live target in the Najaf sector of Iraq during late 2004. The US Air Force and RAF are both likely to increase their number of UAVs in service in the next two years.
US and RAF aircraft have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to work together on operations. It would be a great success if the same could be said for the command and control elements. Despite the successful integration of US and British airpower over Afghanistan and Iraq on a daily basis, significant problems still remain in 2005.
Releasability issues — constraints on the information the US is willing to share with coalition partners and the access it gives to the US command and control systems used to run the air war — remain significant drawbacks. Overall, most of the constraints on releasability are widely acknowledged as counterproductive, bureaucratic and parochial even by US Government standards, which is saying a lot. RAF and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) officers have been asked to leave briefings in the CAOC, even when the information being briefed has been received from their own countries. Nor have they been permitted to directly access many of the CAOC computers, unless an American sits alongside them.
The implementation of releasability constraints has even undercut larger policy goals. For example, in 2003, the Netherlands threatened to withdraw its troops from southern Irag, where they were operating under British headguarters, because they were being denied access to the Predator UAV video feeds from their area of responsibility (AOR). While few would deny the importance of operational security, especially for such sensitive areas as code breaking capabilities and human intelligence, in a world where high-resolution satellite imagery is available on the commercial market, the diplomatic and operational cost of releasability limitations usually far outweigh any security benefits.
One of the most important constraints is that the US SIPRNET (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, which makes possible the Internet-style circulation of imagery from ISR platforms as well as current intelligence) is not releasable, even to the British or Australians, without US supervision. It has to be manually reviewed for transfer to the less-capable US CENTRIX (Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange) system, which has British and Australian access. But because all CENTRIX data must first go through a US hub and requires the CAOC to operate what is effectively a redundant network, information has to be entered into the CENTRIX system through a manual ‘sneaker net’, copying material onto a disc and carrying it to a system-specific computer.
While interoperability problems cannot be cured by any one action, the US Defense Information Systems Agency is pursuing a programme to upgrade CENTRIX connectivity and performance by summer 2006. The COSMOS (Coalition Security Management and Operating System) ACTD (Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration) is intended to address some of the performance degradation experienced by requiring coalition partners to use the CENTRIX system.
The current approach for Anglo-American airpower integration gives up the need for unanimity that marked the 19 NATO members working together in the 1999 Kosovo air offensive. The approach to airpower integration in use over Afghanistan and Iraq today would not work were the British to insist on having their national chain of command involved to delay, review or overturn decisions on a regular basis. However, in practice, the US command structure realizes that the embedded British presence means having another set of eyes backed by judgment they respect which can provide warning of impending problems.
A Future With Roundels Painted On It
Both the US Air Force and the RAF realize that the current integrated air war needs to be the first step rather than the end of the story of evolving interoperability. Starting in 2003, an engagement initiative was set up as a forum to improve interoperability. This effort has received high-level participation from the USAF’s Chief of Staff and the RAF’s Chief of Air Staff. This has covered a broad range of issues, such as reviewing exchange programmes, maximizing exercise opportunities, and aiming for the interoperability of critical hardware.
The engagement initiative has already overhauled the USAF-RAF exchange programme and instituted a schedule for ‘mini-exchange tours’ and ‘cultural visits’. Despite both the USAF and RAF being stretched thin and having their operating budgets drained by Afghanistan and Iraq, both made a point taking part in high-technology exercises in the US in 2005 — the future of network centric operations is being established in such exercises and both air forces realize it is important for the RAF both to learn from the ongoing changes and to bring its experience to bear in feedback.
Other improvements in interoperability have come from equipment upgrades. One of the most important, post-Kosovo, has been the provision of Link 16 NATO-standard datalinks on growing numbers of aircraft. The Tornado F.3 may be no-one’s idea of an ideal air superiority fighter, but with the Link 16, RAF AWACS can automatically share its radar information with any Tornados it is ‘netted’ in to, dramatically increasing their situational awareness. The Link 16 network cuts across national lines, drawing coalition aircraft with suitable equipment (and the training to make use of it) into a Joint Tactical Information Distribution System.
An example of this training — building future coalition airpower — was seen in the RAF’s involvement in Joint Red Flag 05 in March this year. A force of nine Tornado F.3s from 25 Squadron and an RAF AWACS deployed to Holloman AFB, New Mexico, and nine Tornado GR.4s and a Nimrod R.I went to Nellis AFB, Nevada, in an exercise which went beyond the usual Red Flag parameters, in which the RAF has taken part since the 1970s. This involved taking part in Roving Sands 05, a multi-service and coalition exercise running concurrently at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Vision without resources is hallucination. Organizations and procedures have evolved since the mid-1990s — with the desire to avoid repeating the frictions that emerged during the coalition air offensives during the 1995 Bosnia and 1999 Kosovo crises shared by both the British and Americans – have been enabled by investment decisions by both services. This improved capability has functioned as a force multiplier, rendering the effectiveness of the US and British aircraft committed to combat over Afghanistan and Iraq in 2005 greater than that inherent in their performance figures.
Anglo-American co-operation allows the RAF to benefit from the much larger US investment — in the CAOC, command and control, ISR platforms and many other areas — which provides additional effectiveness to British aircraft, aircrew and weapons.